#FirstDraft60 Day 24 — Do You Know Enough About Your Setting?
Sometimes, the geographic location of a story is an integral part of the premise. Other times, we have to figure out where the best setting for our story will be. And this is something you need to know before you get into the planning stage.
Placing your story in the right location is just as vital to its success as choosing the right characters and the right premise.
One of the prime examples I like to give for this when teaching workshops is Stand-In Groom. Because the premise of the story involves a celebrity whose identity must be kept secret, it needed to be set in a location where seeing a celebrity is rare. It also needed to be a city that was big enough for amenities, such as a large event center and a business infrastructure that would support planning a wedding as large as the one Anne is hired to plan. So, while I love Nashville, it was automatically out—it’s a city where celebrity sightings are frequent, and the biggest result is the identification of locals (who don’t approach) and tourists (who want autographs and photos).
Because I’d spent fourteen or fifteen years before coming up with the idea for SIG developing a fictional small city in central Louisiana that includes elements of many other cities where I’ve lived or visited, I decided it would make a perfect backdrop for this story. It gave me the opportunity to create and include any of the types of venues and businesses that I needed for everything that happens in the story, while still incorporating the real-world culture of Louisiana.
Could I have set this story in a fictional city of similar size in, say, New England or the Pacific Northwest? Sure. But since I’ve never lived there, I don’t know the culture. I could have made Anne’s large extended family Italian or Greek instead of Cajun. But, again, I don’t know those cultures. And there are so many fun elements about a large southern family and the Louisiana setting (crawfish boils! Mardi Gras-themed events! unique names! even more of a culture shock for my British hero!) that I was able to incorporate into the story which, I hope, sets it apart from books set elsewhere.
Do You Know Your Setting?
I’m not just talking about knowing where your story is physically taking place. What I’m asking is how much you know about your setting.
Assignment 1: If you don’t already have one, add a SETTING section to your Story Bible. Then ask yourself (and write down your answers to) the following questions:
- Does your setting have a unique culture that can play a role in your story?
Think of places that have cultures that are unique to them: Santa Fe, Louisiana, Las Vegas, the Deep South, Hawaii, a small fishing town on the coast of Maine, etc. What are the unique elements of a setting that you can incorporate into your characters’ background/mannerisms/behavior and into how your story unfolds?
- What are the elements of the culture you need to make sure you get absolutely right?
If you’ve read my Bonneterre books, you know I don’t have people walking around calling each other cher or babbling in Cajun French. If you live somewhere with a unique culture and watch movies/TV shows set there, what are the things that they get wrong that drive you crazy? How can you make sure you get those elements right?
- What are some specific locations and/or events you can incorporate into your story?
In the Matchmakers series, set in Nashville, I have my girls meet for coffee on Sunday afternoons at The Frothy Monkey in the 12 South neighborhood. In the Bonneterre series, with my fictional setting, I created Beignets S’il Vous Plait, a beignets-and-coffee shop reminiscent of Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans or Coffee Call in Baton Rouge. Use specific locations, but have a reason for using those locations. Don’t just “name drop.”
- How can your setting affect how your story plays out?
For example, if you’re writing suspense and your characters are on the run outdoors, they’re going to run into much different conflicts in a mountainous area than in a desert than in a jungle. Is it cold and snowy? hot and humid? Does your character have environmental allergies that could affect whether or not he’s able to do the physical activities required of him in the plot?
- What’s the “mood” of your setting?
Think about the cliche of the gothic novel being set in a creepy, dark, old castle with a labyrinth of hallways, tunnels, and dungeons. There’s a reason why it’s become cliche—because it works. One of my favorite YA novels from childhood is a gothic, but it’s set in a recently built Victorian mansion in Northern California in the late 1800s. The author uses the house, and the fog that envelops it daily, to great effect. How can the weather, the landscape, the culture of your setting affect and effect the mood of your story?
Getting Specific with Your Setting
In addition to knowing the tone and mood and culture of your setting, you need to know as many specifics as possible—even if it doesn’t show up in the story. You need to be an expert. You need to know more about your storyworld than anyone else. If it’s a real city and you don’t live there, natives of that city need to think you’re one of them when they read your book. There’s nothing worse than picking up a book that’s set in a place you’re intimately familiar with and finding errors, cliches, “misplaced” landmarks, stereotyped locals, etc., within. (Especially for someone like me who lives in a city like Nashville that is SO different for those of us who live here than the reputation/stereotype that most people think of.)
Assignment 2: Add a chart (or pages, if you have lots of information in these categories) to your Settings section of your Story Bible to record/collect the following information about your setting.
- Your Story World
- Houses, Buildings, Architectural Styles
This is easier if you’re using a real setting vs. a fictional setting. But it’s still important to do research on the correct terms for the types of buildings/houses and their architectural styles, even if you’ve lived in the place where your story is set your entire life. A neighborhood developed in the 1880s isn’t going to be filled with Craftsman style houses; nor is one built in the 1980s going to be filled with mid-century modern styles. One of the things that makes a story seem more immediate is detail. What detail can you discover about the buildings in your setting that you can include in your notes WHETHER OR NOT YOU USE IT IN YOUR ACTUAL STORY?
- Landscapes, Climates
What does your story world look like? What are the geographic features? What is the weather like? No, you’re not necessarily going to include all of this in your story, but you, the author, need to know as much about this as possible so that you don’t have it snowing on Thanksgiving in Brownsville, Texas. If you’re creating a fantasy/sci-fi world, this is of VITAL importance to know before you start writing.
Is there a unique terminology to your setting? For example, when I was writing the Ransome series, I had to keep lists of all of the different parts of the ships and sails. Be specific with these (schooner rather than ship; jigger staysail instead of sail, etc.).
- Historical Background
What’s the history of your storyworld? For those of us writing in either real or fictional cities set in familiar countries (like the US), this isn’t as hard as for those creating their own countries/worlds. But it is important to know why, for example, a person of color might be treated differently in Selma, Alabama, than in Detroit, Michigan, even in the year 2015.
- Culture and Customs
What are the unique cultures and customs of your story world? “Nashville” has one connotation to the outside world, and a very different one to those of us who live here (and to those who live in different areas of Nashville. What’s culture/custom for me living in Woodbine might be completely different from culture/custom for a 20something hipster living in downtown. What festivals and other celebrations take place in your city? (And what does it mean when someone in Nashville calls CMA Fest “Fan Fair”—or even CMApocalypse?) How do people greet each other? Do they make eye contact and speak with strangers (Nashville), or do they avoid it if at all possible (Washington DC)?
- Language, Accent, and Regional Slang
Whether real-world or fantasy/sci-fi, people are going to have different vernacular based on their region, their local culture/customs, and their backgrounds. But do not fall into the newbie trap of feeling like you must write this out in phonetic dialect. It marks you as a novice who doesn’t know the rules of good writing.
- Social/Government Organization
More important for fictional/otherworldly story settings, but it’s good to know what would happen if a character breaks a social taboo or a law (and knowing what those social taboos and laws are). It’s also good to know if a character in a historical set in North America would be referring to the head of their government as “King George” (the third) or “President George” (Washington).
- Daily Life
This includes fashion/dress/style, manners, diet, calendar, customs, etc. Again, this is less consuming if you’re writing contemporary/real-world settings, but still something everyone needs to consider when developing your settings.
- IMAGES, IMAGES, IMAGES
Collect images of settings that inspire, floorplans/images from real-estate sites of your characters’ homes, images of the city or countryside or landscape, and so on. This is a great time to employ Pinterest—and you can use a private board if you don’t want to share with the rest of the world just yet.
Where does your story take place? Go from the broad (Planet Earth) to the narrow (the Woodbine neighborhood of Nashville) to the specific (77 Elberta Street).
Either collect maps (you can use the PrtScr/Print Screen button on your PC keyboard to capture an image of your screen and then paste it as an image in PowerPoint or Publisher, crop away whatever you don’t need (double click on the image and then the crop button will be on the toolbar), and the save it as an image you can use anywhere else (right click on the image and select Save as Picture…). Make sure to save it as a .jpg file for universality of use. If you’re creating your own setting (real world or fantasy/sci-fi), create your own maps, because that’s the best way to remember where you put those houses/buildings from #2.
Learn more about developing your setting here.
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